The sword of Damocles hangs over the head of the American labor movement. This spring the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on Friedrichs vs. CTA, a case that could end automatic union membership in all government jobs. If this "right to work" effort goes the way the right wing hopes, it would be followed by an aggressive and well-funded direct mail and robo-call campaign to encourage public sector employees to "give yourself a raise" by dropping their union memberships and ceasing to pay dues or fees.
Misleadingly titled "right to work" laws prohibit unions in the private sector from negotiating fees for the services they are compelled to provide to all workers they represent. They are designed to reduce unions' income and power. First introduced in 1947, these laws used to be limited to the former slave states of the Confederacy. But in recent years, a coordinated right-wing drive has expanded these laws to a majority of states, including union strongholds like Michigan and Indiana. Thanks in part to such laws, unions today represent only 7 percent of private sector workers. But factoring in the public sector raises total union density to 12 percent. Unions with substantial public sector membership—AFSCME, SEIU, the teachers unions—are the last remaining large, powerful unions in the U.S. Friedrichs is nothing less than an assassination attempt on the union movement.....According to a recent Gallop poll, 58% of Americans support unions and want to see them strengthened. Research shows that one in three American workers would vote for a union at their workplace if an election were held today.
But a union election won't be held today at most workplaces. Vicious employer resistance and retaliation, a broken legal process and declining union resources stand in the way of most workplaces winning the majority vote that is required in our all-or-nothing union representation system.
Of course, the workers who want a union want… a union. They want an organization that can help raise their wages and improve their benefits, protect them from arbitrary and capricious firings and gives them voice in how things get done at work. All that a union can provide an at-large member right now is discount AT&T cell phone plans and pet health insurance. At-large memberships are not likely to lead to millions of new union members.
But there might be a couple hundred thousand people willing to pay 10 bucks a month to belong to a movement. Potentially faced with the immediate loss of exactly that many current members, that's an attractive proposition to unions. The key will be to actually bring a movement into people's homes, and that means connecting at-large union membership with advocacy and legislative campaigns.
A "right to your job" movement
Opening up the labor movement and pursuing new rights for all workers would help get labor out of the box of thinking mostly about unionized workplaces and appearing to be a special interest. Unions' recent embrace of ambitious efforts to raise state-level minimum wages to $15 has so far been at the heart of these efforts. Upwards of 24 million working people would receive a raise if the pathetic federal floor of $7.25 an hour was raised to just $10, so the Fight for $15 has a huge built in constituency beyond just fast food workers.
Imagine how quickly the debate would change if unions fought for and won meaningful job protections for all workers in a state! Call it a "right to your job" law. Such a law would lay bare just how cynically manipulative and hollow the so-called "Right to Work" laws are.
To be meaningful, such just cause laws would have to include some kind of a court in which to hear cases. This could be as simple as mandating private mediation and arbitration or as complex as creating new state regulatory agencies to hear such cases. If workers did have a court in which they could defend their employment, unions would have something real to offer at-large members as a part of joining the union. And with that offer comes the potential for substantial membership growth.
A radical departure for labor
Attempting to legislate job protections, pay and benefit increases for large groups of workers who probably won't become dues-paying union members would be a radical departure for the American labor movement. Unions have, for historical reasons, preferred to make their gains in contract bargaining. The early labor movement, in the 19th century, did work to pass laws on wages, hours and factory conditions. They saw most of those laws overturned, as well as many of their strikes and boycotts enjoined, by conservative courts that viewed unions' efforts as violations of private contracts and disturbances of interstate commerce.....
[Of course, a "right to A job" would be even better. j]
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